It was a weird trip, that jaunt to Asia. Hagel was due at a meeting of defense ministers from the ASEAN countries, being held in Brunei, and he made stops along the way in Hawaii, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and Manila to show off the Obama Administration’s “strategic rebalance,” better known as the “pivot” to Asia. The day before Hagel took off from Andrews Air Force Base, however, Bashar al-Assad launched a Sarin attack on his own people, and Washington began to gear up for punitive airstrikes. It left the Secretary in the unenviable position of having to embark on a low-stakes diplomatic trip as the real decision-making was going on back in the capital. Hagel and his press staff made a big deal about how he was staying up all night to join secure videoconferences with the White House, and how a modern-day Pentagon chief needs to be able to walk and chew gum—but it was painfully awkward that the President was planning a war and hadn’t recalled the Secretary of Defense to come and help. Instead, this veteran legislator and heterodox thinker—boss of the world’s largest military—was asked to be a human placeholder.
As he made his way to Brunei, Hagel carried on dutifully with his brief. At his stop at the Marine base at Kaneohe Bay, near Honolulu, he stood under the baking sun, wearing a lei, and talked policy to several hundred sweltering troops. “You’re all much aware of our rebalance that President Obama initiated a couple of years ago,” he began (it was not at all clear that they were). “I had my first opportunity to directly assess and discuss our rebalancing when I was in Singapore at the Shangri-La dialogue with many of the ASEAN leaders and many other nations.” It has once been counted a major strength of Hagel’s that he’d been a foot soldier in combat in Vietnam, and that he would be able to relate to his grunts as one of their own. But the marines looked bored, and Hagel kept wandering off on tangents and name-dropping elderly senators. Answering his third straight audience question about potential cuts to military benefits (there were no questions about the Strategic Rebalance), Hagel discussed the challenging fiscal landscape and then offered: “These are realities. Life’s tough. I wish I controlled more things than I do. So do you. But I don’t.”
There are those like John McCain who have made that kind of blunt talk and refusal to pander into a kind of political trademark, and have styled themselves as no-bullshit honchos, the guys who Must Be Dealt With, but as Secretary, Hagel could never quite pull that off. During the days I followed him around Southeast Asia he appeared passive and diminished. He couldn’t articulate, in public or in private, his own philosophy about the use of force. “I think the world has had enough war,” he said at a press conference in Malaysia, only to enlist himself in the following days as a pitch-man for the proposed airstrikes in Syria, logging phone calls to Congress from the air and between formal meetings. “I don’t think they’re inconsistent,” he told me in his soundproof cabin on the flight home to Washington. “This is not going to war in another country, as defined probably by most wars,” he said. I pressed from different angles, asking about his experiences as a rifleman in a hopeless war, and what specifically we could and should hope to accomplish in Syria, or any other target of American intercession. He replied in ragged chains of platitudes and caveats.